In the shocking suburban silence, a local library changed everything
The first sign I was experiencing a type of shock when I moved from Melbourne's inner city to its suburbs back in 2012, shortly before my daughter was born, was the way my body reacted to night-time silence: the constant feeling of being untethered, of waiting for sound that didn't come. I couldn't relax. I had become so used to the constant din of trams, trains, of friends visiting, of late-night street conversations, that I had forgotten how to embrace the quiet that could be found not only at night, but in the world.
I was so shocked by the silence that I found it difficult to work on the manuscript that would eventually become my debut novel, See What I Have Done. I'd write in my little room at home and become distracted by the slow movement of the suburb, the small inch-by-inch steps of people walking by, the molasses drag of time. When slowed down, was this how long it took to live a life? Was I only now noticing the actual pace of the world? Had I always been moving too fast?
Sarah Schmidt at Ivanhoe Library, one of three she embraced when she moved to the suburbs. Credit:Simon Schluter
Silence also magnified sound, particularly the unrelenting soundtrack of my anxiety. The negative narrative that was often playing underneath the surface was becoming harder to suppress. Worse still, it was getting in the way of creativity. I always believed I was good at adapting to new situations (and I was about to experience a monumental change with impending motherhood) but this was proving difficult. I felt more than isolated: I felt lost.
It wasn't just that I didn't know anyone in the area: it was feeling that the world had become smaller, would keep getting smaller, and I desperately needed to connect to it in order to reconnect to myself, especially as a writer.
It's easy to let yourself believe you're the only one who feels this isolation and disconnection, that you don't belong to your own life in some way. But I knew this was a shared feeling. People are told daily they don't belong in different ways, based on their race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, mental health, or the circumstances in which they arrived in this country. You can feel disconnected and powerless in your own family.
This growing sense of claustrophobia and dislocation meant I could no longer work from the little room at home. Being on my own to create was now a very bad idea. I needed to hear other voices. I needed to remind myself that there was a world full of people. I decided to do something I hadn't done in a long time: write in the local public library.
Paying attention allowed me to connect to place through its people and environment.
I never went to the library believing I would write in a temple of quiet solitude or that I even had a "right" to it: I went because it took me out of the house and because I would be around others, regardless of whether we interacted. It would also force me to work.
I realise now that what I was looking for was community, for others who saw public libraries as a place for them no matter who they were. I would walk to three libraries in particular: Rosanna, Watsonia and Ivanhoe. They were relatively close to home. Not only was I getting fresh air, I was starting to pay closer attention to the smaller things that tend to go unnoticed.
Paying attention allowed me to connect to place through its people and environment. I began to understand it more because it was no longer simply a geographic landscape: my connection to the place was now through humanity, through taking the time to notice people. And then there were the libraries. They changed everything.
Suddenly I was surrounded by strangers working on their own projects. I overheard conversations better than any I could dream up for my characters: they were the small details of people's lives that carried so much weight and importance. What I was seeing and hearing were people looking for connection and looking to express themselves beyond their assigned roles. Even hearing the swarms of children raise joyful noise at storytime was a kind of creative magic for my manuscript and soul.
Hearing stories come to life and being shared is a beautiful experience. All around me were jobseekers helping each other with resume advice, book club members, a tech class, a language cafe, newly arrived migrants asking librarians for assistance to navigate their way through online services.
The more I connected to and observed the world around me, the more inspiration I took from the suburbs: I was able to understand and develop what it was I was interested in as a writer. I took photos and jotted notes of the seemingly insignificant things — dead birds and rats, rotting flowers, endless house renovations, strange insects, singular lost shoes, winter sunsets — all of which would form the early foundations of the novel I am currently writing. I found so much renewed creativity that the initial shock I had experienced subsided. Best of all, the draft of See What I Have Done that felt so hard to write slowly let me back in.
The public library is a communal space to feel safe, to try something new and enrich your life.
Eventually the quiet nights no longer seemed deafening: they were simply the passing hours of neighbourhood sleep. I began to appreciate the idea of slowing down. It was in these quiet moments that I decided to work in public libraries. As someone committed to community service, writing, books, and knowing the power of having more creativity in your life no matter what form it took, I wanted to see what I could contribute. I returned to study and became a librarian. Within 18 months I had a job as the reading and literacy co-ordinator for the same library service I had turned to in those lonely months of arrival. It seemed like utter luck.
One of the wonderful aspects of my job is helping to develop and foster opportunities for local, new, or emerging writers from diverse backgrounds, through one-off creative workshops, writing masterclasses or longer-term writing programs, groups and festivals. Moreover, I can help connect established authors with community so they can not only share their skills, knowledge and professional advice, but support them as working artists. I have found that people have a desire to express their creativity and voice, to tell at least one story that is meaningful to them.
The public library is a communal space to feel safe, to try something new and enrich your life. This is a place where stories are created and heard, where individuals can create community. It was easy to see that like me, many people were looking for a chance to connect not just with others but with themselves. The local library is a place where you can find yourself regardless of the roles you're assigned every day.
Inside public libraries are the stories of communities, where people can amplify their voice even in the smallest ways. It's an honour to be able to tell people that there are others who are looking for connection, looking to belong. You are not alone: we see you and we are not looking away.
Sarah Schmidt's See What I Have Done won the Australian Book Industry award for literary fiction in 2018. She takes part in the Yarra Plenty Regional Library Booklovers Festival, September 6-22. yprl.vic.gov.au/booklovers/
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